Love of “complex machines” takes PA student from flying helicopters to providing healthcare
Radford University Carilion (RUC) physician assistant (PA) student Kirsten Walker likes working with complex machines. After graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, she was commissioned as an Army officer and chose to attend flight training, following in her late father’s footsteps. She was soon piloting Blackhawk helicopters.
“I always wanted to be a pilot,” Walker remembers. “I feel like I was born to fly and made flying for the Army my first successful career.”
Walker said that it feels wonderful to make a giant, intricate machine perform exquisite, physics-defying maneuvers, and that is why she is now learning in the PA program at RUC.
“I also love the complex machine that is the human body,” Walker said.
Walker began her work in healthcare while she was still in the service. Her final and first non-flight job while enlisted was with the Army Physical Disability Agency on the physical evaluation board.
“I worked with other officers and a team of doctors to evaluate soldiers’ medical conditions and determine if they were fit for continued military service,” she said. “It renewed an interest I had in medical science and spurred me to enter the healthcare field.”
Walker said that her time working in healthcare made her realize she had a desire to provide direct patient care. When she retired from the Army in 2016, she served as a clinical manager of several kidney dialysis clinics and attended Georgetown University’s post-baccalaureate pre-medical program to earn her prerequisites for entering a PA program.
While Walker said she learned a lot from both her classroom and practical healthcare experiences, it was the time she was in the military that really prepared her for physician assistant school.
“The Army had what we called the ‘suck factor’ and is ruled by Murphy’s Law,” Walker said. “When you’re training in a field environment, and there are few comfort items, and it’s cold and starts to rain, that’s the suck factor. Plus, what could go wrong, will go wrong.”
Walker recalls that the military taught her resilience, to train and be prepared for the worst, not to be surprised and to be flexible when things change.
“It also taught me that I thrive in leadership positions where I can be a daily decision-maker, train and mentor others and positively affect other people’s lives,” she said.
Walker said she chose the PA program at RUC after doing some extensive research and finding it had the attributes that are important to her.
“I found it to be a long-standing, accredited program that is highly regarded in the medical community,” she said. “The faculty truly want every student to succeed and prepare us thoroughly for both clinical rotations or clinical practice and the PA national certification examination.”
Walker added that the PA faculty foster a truly collaborative environment for students to learn and grow. Her favorite part of the program is the interprofessional education courses that have allowed her to work with students in other healthcare programs throughout the university.
“I was so impressed with the faculty and students during my interview that it endeared me to the school,” Walker recalled. “Also, Roanoke is a beautiful city that has a large medical community with many learning opportunities during clinical rotations. It was the perfect place for me to continue my education.”
Once she graduates, Walker plans to work in emergency medicine or trauma, but she’s keeping an open mind about other areas of medicine. She also thinks that Southwest Virginia may end up being her permanent home.
“The Roanoke area is beautiful, and I have family in Blacksburg, so we would be open to staying in the valley,” Walker said. “My oldest two daughters will graduate high school in the next two years, so staying here is a definite possibility.”